Barber: A’s and baseball fans were robbed by MLB’s one-game wild-card series

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The A’s season was over too quickly. I’m not being wistful here. I’m being literal. The A’s season ended too soon.

Tonight should be Game 2 in a best-of-three series with the New York Yankees, or a travel day after two games in a best-of-five. The A’s deserved that much. Everyone who loves baseball deserves that much. We should be watching Khris Davis get another crack at Dellin Betances. We should be waiting to see if Matt Chapman can turn in a defensive play at third base to match Adeiny Hechavarria’s.

I grew up rooting for the A’s, but this is not a partisan beef. I’d feel the same if the A’s had bullpenned the Yankees into submission in Tuesday’s American League wild-card game, and hopped on a train up to Boston for a division series against the Red Sox.

There are a lot of great things about Major League Baseball right now. The one-game wild card isn’t among them.

This isn’t the NFL, in which a team can prove its dominance in a single three-hour game. Yeah, there are upsets in football, too. But when they occur, you tip your cap to the victorious underdog, because it feels like they earned that win. You could argue that a one-game playoff would make a small degree of sense in the NBA, too. With everything on the line, the more talented and better-coached hoops team should be able to assert itself.

But baseball? A one-game playoff series ignores the basic nature of the sport.

I hesitate to use the word “luck” here, because athletes earn what they get. But there is no denying that baseball has a randomness you don’t find in other major sports. A hot pitcher, or a struggling pitcher, can reset the course of a game like no other athlete — and his heroism or failure can be pretty unpredictable. The difference between a line drive right at the second baseman and a line drive in the gap between first and second can be a win vs. a loss. The difference between either of those line drives and a routine fly ball can be millimeters on the bat.

For these reasons, and others, the gap between the better baseball team and the lesser baseball team is much smaller than in other sports. The Boston Red Sox had a brilliant season in 2018, their best in 72 years. Their winning percentage was .667. Last year, seven NFL teams, four NBA teams and four NHL teams exceeded that win rate.

In his book “A Drunkard’s Walk,” mathematician Leonard Mlodinow demonstrated that if Team A were able to beat Team B about 55 percent of the time — a pretty big difference, by MLB standards — it would require a 269-game series for Team A to prove its superiority in a statistically significant sense.

What’s the point? Randomness. You just can’t rely on the better baseball team to win a single game, which is why the later rounds of the MLB playoffs are best-of-five or best-of-seven.

Look at the A’s, for example. As most people know, because baseball media beat you over the head with the fact, Oakland had the best record in MLB after the middle of June. But in the 30 series the A’s played starting June 15, they won the opening game of those series 18 times. That’s a pretty good winning percentage of .600, but it’s far short of their .726 percentage in the other games of those series. I mean, the A’s lost consecutive series openers to the Giants, for goodness sake.

Why vanquish a team that is just getting warmed up?

Granted, manager Bob Melvin certainly would have approached those second-half series openers differently had they been more urgent. It’s also possible that the competitive nature of his team, his skill as a manager, and the ability of the Oakland players and scouting staff to adjust to opponents made the A’s more dangerous as a series progressed. Those adjustments largely go out the window in a one-game, do-or-die elimination.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. In fact, I’m sure of it. A recent poll conducted by the Stillman School of Business and the Sharkey Institute, both affiliated with Seton Hall University, found that 47 percent of Americans favored multi-game MLB wild-card series, while 26 percent were opposed. Presumably, the other 27 percent were too busy googling “Liam Hendriks” to care.

What’s that you say? The A’s and Yankees could avoided this tightrope walk by winning their divisions? Sure, but these aren’t also-rans we’re talking about. The Yankees won 100 games, the A’s 97. They were better than four of MLB’s division winners — better than all the division winners except the ones, you know, atop their own divisions. They should still be playing.

Major League Baseball’s rulers might argue that a one-game showdown adds to the thrill of postseason baseball, and they aren’t necessarily wrong. A sense of great anticipation precedes the wild-card games. But looking specifically at A’s-Yankees, it’s hard to imagine that another game or four somehow could have subtracted from the excitement.

The real reason for the one-game wild-card round is MLB’s bloated 162-game schedule. Just as surely as one game isn’t enough to establish superiority, 162 are unnecessary. When the league added the wild-card round in 2012, it had a scheduling problem. Without cramming in a bunch of doubleheaders, MLB couldn’t add a true wild-card round without either starting regular-season games in mid-March or pushing the World Series a week or two into November.

The best solution would a 154-game schedule, like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams used to play, followed by five-game wild-card series. It’ll never happen.

The solution at hand, the nine-inning series, falls flat. I would have loved to see whether Melvin would go back to Fernando Rodney in a pressure situation, or if he’d run out of confidence in the reliever. I wanted to see how Mike Fiers would fare against that daunting Yankees lineup in a big game. I wanted to see if the three big bombers in the series — Khris Davis, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton — could dent some more seats.

Mostly, I yearned to see playoff baseball in Oakland. Veteran Bay Area sports fans have seen that amazing transformation, when the Coliseum goes from sleepy to electric as the calendar flips to October. But a lot of the current A’s don’t know it. Chapman and Davis, Blake Treinen, Matt Olson, Marcus Semien — this was their turn, and it was cut short.

Come on, MLB. Can’t we at least have best two out of three? You’re treating your wild cards like deuces instead of the royalty they are.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-529-5218 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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